Recently, I was invited to give a speech on the economic empowerment of women. I’m usually pretty relaxed about public speaking, but this was a heavy duty group of mostly female politicians, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, executives, and internationally renowned women’s rights activists, including Kerry Kennedy Cuomo and Naomi Tutu.
The assigned topic was fodder for tons of statistics, some encouraging and others deeply disturbing. The speech had the potential to be very heavy, which I wanted to avoid. So, along with all the sober economic news and calls for ongoing vigilance in the fight for gender equality, I talked a lot about my mom.
Vera Clarke has always been a walking testimony to women’s financial independence. Most of her lessons in economic empowerment were stated explicitly and often. Others were self-evident but never lost on me, her only child.
First and foremost, she urged me to always have my own job and my own money, including a secret account—as in secret from my husband. A Depression-era child whose father worked several jobs while her mom raised five kids, she loved her own mother deeply but didn’t want her life. So, she became the first in her family to graduate from college, she got a master’s degree and began a career in education, a field that she knew would allow her to balance the work-mother scales well.
My mom insisted that any woman who works outside the home should pay someone else to clean the inside of her home. I know cleaning is therapeutic for some people but my mother is not one of them, and I’m here to testify that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! She made it clear that hiring other women to help with the house or my after-school care wasn’t just helpful to her, it was helpful to them, enabling them to do for their families and pursue their dreams as well.
“Money is freedom,” she always said. “If you have it, you can go where you want, buy what you want, and do what you want. If you don’t, you will always be trying to get someone’s permission.”
The amount of money one made was never her preoccupation. “Don’t measure yourself by what you have,” she’d say. “Measure yourself by what you have accomplished.”
The handling of whatever amount you had was what counted. As a New York City public school teacher, she never made a killing and, in 50 years of marriage, she never earned as much as my father did. But she had an equal say in the family’s financial decisions and she made the most of what she had on her own terms, treating herself to cultural events my dad had no interest in, trips he couldn’t get away for, and generally buying whatever she damn well pleased (which often meant surprise gifts for him or me).